Sunday, October 5, 2014

Early Obituary for Volapük

It's all just memorization,
and by now you've probably
memorized this article anyway.
It was probably premature to declare Volapük dead in 1888. Volapük never had annual congresses, but there would be another (the last one) in 1889. Nor is it clear (to me) who it is declaring that “the Volapuk craze seems to have run its course and died,” as I can find no other references to its author, C. H. De Ligne. The piece originally appear ed in the Chicago News, and was reprinted in the Daily Yellowstone Journal on October 5, 1888.

The “Volapük craze,” as De Ligne put it, seems to have been at its height in 1888, although schisms were forming. The Phillipsburg Herald (Phillipsburg, Kansas) reported on the same day that “Spelin in the rival universal language to Volapuk.” With rivals forming, maybe De Ligne felt that the downfall of Volapük was already in the cards.

He (my assumption) seems to be wrong about several things, but I’ll let De Ligne have his say first:
How to Learn a Language
The Volpuk craze seems to have run its course and died, and everybody has made up his mind that we have not yet got the world language. If people only knew how easy it is to learn French or German or Italian there would be less of these foolish attempts to force an unknown tongue upon the world. To get along as well as there is any necessity in a foreign country you do not need more than 1,000 or 1,500 words. Think how easy it is to get these words into your memory. That means less than the number of words in an average newspaper column, and it is really the fact that you can get enough of French, say, to get along with as easily as you can memorize a column in the daily newspaper. It is so with German and with Italian. You get the grammatical construction and then all you have to do is to make yourself a vocabulary.

The trouble is that people imagine learning a strange tongue is so hard that they will not attempt it in a common sense way, but they shank form the difficulties which exist only in their own imaginations. Cardinal Mezzofanti[1] could easily take a grammar and a dictionary of a strange language and hear a confession from it in three days. I hold that the average man can do partly as well as that, anyhow, if he applies himself in the right way. There is no reason why every educated man should not be equipped with at least three modern languages, and six months of his spare time—of the hours wasted on novels and trifles—would do the work.—C. H. De Ligne in Chicago News.
First, it’s clear that De Ligne was of the opinion that if you’ve not a polyglot, it’s all your fault. Since his audience were English speakers, it’s a safe assumption that he expected native English speakers to have a working knowledge of three other languages, and so lets’ assume that he expected the French, Germans, and Italians to have a working knowledge of each of these languages, and perhaps a smattering of English as well. And he’s probably wrong. My German is terribly weak. If I were faced with someone who spoke German (and no other language), things would be rough going. Yet, if I tallied up my vocabulary (from Arbeit to Zeitung), I suspect I know more than the 1,500 words that De Linge says should get you by in any language.

And, of course, memorizing 1,500 words isn’t going to help with the grammar, which De Linge shrugs off with “you get the grammatical construction.” This is, after all, what most people find difficult about a foreign language. Other than Steve Martin’s joke of many years ago “those French have a different word for everything!”,[2] people complain about the grammar, not the vocabulary. It’s the grammatical construction that causes all the problems.

The Cardinal Mezzofanti mentioned in the article is the hyperpologlot Cardinal Giuseppe Caspar Mezzofanti, who is reputed to have learned more than thirty languages. His contemporaries told of his proficiency in languages. Charles William Russell quotes one of these in his Life of Cardinal Mezzofanti.
I had the pleasure of dining with him [Mezzofanti] formerly in the house of a Bolognese lady, at whose table a German officer declared he could not have distinguished him from a German. He passed the whole of the next day with G—— and myself, and G—— told me he should have taken him for an Englishman, who had been some time out of England. A Smyrniote servant who was with me, bore equal testimony to his skill in other languages, and declared that he might pass for a Greek or a Turk in the dominions of the Grand Seignior.
Perhaps, Cardinal Mezzofanti followed De Ligne’s advice and stayed away from "novels and trifles,” though Russell notes that the Cardinal not only had read Lord Byon’s Childe Harold’s Pilgramage, but bested the poet at a knowledge of London slang. In any case, here we get the story that not only has Cardinal Mezzofanti learned the various languages, but his accent is so perfect that he might be mistaken for a native speaker. I remain unconvinced.

But we are not a species of Mezzofantis, and here De Ligne has missed the point. Sure, it’s claimed that Mezzofanti spoke thirty languages,[3] and this would be impressive even if he spoke only half of these fluently (and by that, I mean able to carry on an extended conversation with a native speaker.) It does make me wonder how many languages De Ligne had mastered. This is, after all the point of an international language (Volapük, Esperanto, Ido, or any other). Sure, maybe you can learn some French, and enough German to get around, and sufficient Italian to make yourself understood. Should you add to that a basic competency in Spanish? How about some Arabic? Russian might be nice, though word has it that it’s a bear to learn.

And so just a year after Charles E. Sprague was delighted that Volapük had dropped its formal pronoun, C. H. De Ligne was pronouncing Volapük dead, though it would be another fourteen years before Sprague would agree with that. Still, if instead of getting a shaky knowledge of several languages, and hoping that the person you need to speak to has an ability that meshes with yours,[4] wouldn’t it be great if there were one language of such general utility that if you learned it (and it took little trouble to do so) you didn’t need to memorize how to say “train station” in a dozen different languages?

De Ligne may have been prescient about the demise of Volapük; it certainly didn’t last long after the publication of his article. Still, I can’t share his scoffing the very idea of an international language, no matter how remote that hope may seem today. And he was wrong about how the ease with which one can learn a language.

  1. Misspelled as “Mezzofauti in the original.”  ↩
  2. Told on his album A Wild and Crazy Guy, (1978). Not actually true, due to loanwords in both directions. What’s the French word for “ballet”?  ↩
  3. One reference I saw said “forty.”  ↩
  4. Imagine following De Ligne’s suggestion and knowing (let’s go wild) 2,000 words each of French, German, and Italian. Now you’re in Budapest, hoping that the person you need to talk to has sufficient knowledge of one of those languages, since De Ligne never saw fit to suggest that you might need some Hungarian as well. And what if your question is “how do I catch the train to Prague?” Gonna learn Czech too?

    Sometimes the person knowing a language doesn’t help. Several years ago, I was in a Paris train station, with plans to travel to Blois. The man ahead of me wanted to go to the same place, and the ticket agent spoke Engish, but he kept asking her for tickets to “Bloyce.” Once he spelled it out, she got it. Then I stepped up, and despite that she wore a pin indicating that she spoke English, asked in French for the tickets. And Blois is pronounced “blwah.”  ↩

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